Escape from the tomb

by John Wijngaards, The Tablet, May 20th 1995, p. 628-629

We do not like to remind ourselves of the inescapable fact that one day we shall die. It does not seem right somehow. The idea of facing the idea squarely strikes us as morbid. We rather pretend it will never happen; to ourselves that is. Death itself fascinates us.

No respectable news coverage of life’s tragedies may omit a precise count of casualties. If TV ratings can be trusted, we love to watch stories in which people get killed or in which their murders are unravelled. The sordid details of violent crime shock us with a strange mix of pleasure and fear. In every person we see killed, we subconsciously celebrate our own survival.

Thinking about our death need neither be morbid or unnatural. Without admitting it to ourselves, our own impending death preoccupies us. Death is an objective we, consciously or unconsciously, move towards. And when we grow older, repression can only harm us. As Carl Jung observed: “It is just as neurotic in old age not to focus upon the goal of death as it is in youth to repress fantasies which paint an exciting future”. Like Christ.

Entering the tomb with Christ means facing death in all its reality. From a human point of view, death means the end of all that is dear to us. Darkness. Annihilation. Having no reality. Being nowhere. Losing all our possessions and the comfort of close relationships. As Thornton Wilder wrote: “Good-Bye World… Good-bye to clocks ticking… and mother’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths… and sleeping and waking up. O, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realise you ”.

In the cold and dark of the tomb, with the stone in place and no human voices to be heard, we can reflect on life from a new perspective. So many things that seem so terribly important now, suddenly appear to be trivial. Other realities we may have been over looking, acquire more significance. Surrounding ourselves with the silence of death helps us re-appraise the real worth of the life we may still be allowed to live, and the eternal values that lie beyond it.

While Christ stayed in the tomb, he “descended into hell”. This is a Jewish way of saying that he spent his time in the nether world (sheol) the dark and dreary resting place of the dead. I have always been impressed by the symbolism of the fact that Christ rose “on the third day”. He spent at least two days in the realm of the dead. Entering the tomb and absorbing the meaning one’s death takes time. To be crucified with Christ and share the tomb with him requires an acceptance of our fragility and mortality, in order that, with Christ, we can embrace life in a new way.

Some years ago a friend of mine and I spent a good part of Good Friday in the old cemetery of Kensal Green. We marvelled at the frivolity of Victorian funeral monuments, tried to decipher ancient inscriptions on half sunken tomb stones, pondered over the fate of these individuals who had obviously struggled as much as we ourselves and sat down to consider our own death. I had just lost a close friend and felt I needed time to come to terms with the inevitability of my own death, sooner or later.

Preparing for death is a respectable Christian tradition which, unfortunately, has come into disuse in our own time. Carthusian monks, I’m told, used to sleep in their coffins. Both the religious congregations and devotional lay movements promoted exercises “to prepare oneself for a good death”. Though the practise could, at times, be unhealthy and morbid, the idea was good. It is good to face death before we have to.

Many of us have forgotten that this is one purpose of Good Friday. Yes, the day focuses on Christ’s love: “The Son of God who loved me and who sacrificed himself for my sake” (Galatians 2,20). We identify with Christ’s sufferings and gruesome death. We express our gratitude for what he has done and endured for our sake. But there is more to it than that.

In some mysterious way we have to share Christ’s death.”I have been crucified with Christ. I live now not with my own life but with the life of Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2,19). “If one man has died for all then all should be dead. The reason he died for all was that all living people should live no longer for themselves but for but for him who died and was raised to life for them” (2 Cor 5,15). Or, in other words: “When we were baptised in Christ Jesus we were baptised in his death. When we were baptised we went into the tomb with him and joined him in death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father’s glory , we too might live a new life” (Romans 6,4). And this is where the tomb comes in.

Christ’s tomb in Jerusalem was a landmark well known to the ancient Christians. The ancient creed in 1 Corinthians 15, 3-5 states: “Christ died for our sins, he was buried, he was raised”. Since the mention of burial implies a tomb, the profession of his rising implies that the tomb was believed to be empty. It would be unthinkable for someone like Paul to proclaim the resurrection while the body was still in the tomb. A claim that Jesus had risen would inevitably provoke the query: What about his tomb?

The tombs of great and holy men were visited and venerated. Jesus’ contemporaries in Jerusalem were very tomb conscious. From literary sources and archeological evidence a list has been drawn up of forty-nine well known tombs in and around Jerusalem. Jesus himself referred to the custom of venerating tombs (Matthew 23, 29-31). In such a climate both Jesus’ disciples and his adversaries would have closely watched his tomb and taken an interest in whatever happened there.

When the Gospel tradition speak of Jesus’ tomb, they indicate a definite place that must have been known to everyone. “In the place where he was crucified there was a garden and in the garden a new tomb where no one had ever been laid” (John 19,41). “Joseph of Aramathea laid Jesus ‘ body in his own new tomb which he had hewn in the rock. He rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb before leaving (Matthew 27,60). These are topographical details verifiable by anyone in Jerusalem. Again, we know that in early Christian teaching at Jerusalem, as reflected in Acts, the tombs of David and Jesus were compared. In psalm 16,10 David had prayed “You will not abandon my soul to the underworld, nor allow your holy one to see corruption”. The early Christians maintained this verse did not apply to David, but to Jesus. “Brethren”, Peter stated, “I may say to you confidently of the patriarch David that he both died and was buried and his tomb is with us to this day. But being the prophet he was and knowing that God had promised under oath that he would set one of his descendants upon his throne, he foresaw and announced the resurrection of Christ, namely that it was he who was not to be abandoned to the underworld, whose flesh would not see corruption. This Jesus God has indeed raised up and of that we are all witnesses” (Acts 2,29-32).

Peter’s argument only made sense because the undisturbed tomb of David could be contrasted with the empty tomb of Christ.

That is why all the four gospel accounts end with the finding of the empty tomb. Scriptural research has greatly clarified the origin and meaning of this account. The oldest account, which we find in Mark 15, 42-16,8, belongs to the ancient passion narrative. Internal analysis shows that this text was not used in kerygma (to proclaim the message) nor in apologetics (to defend one’s faith). Rather it would seem to have been a liturgical reading which seems to have accompanied a ritual of reconstructing Jesus’s passion in Jerusalem. This liturgical practise of the early Christian community has three parts which are reflected in the narrative: the vigil or night celebration (Mark 14, 18-72), the Good Friday commemoration at the Prayer Hours (Mark 15,2-41) and the Easter Celebration at the empty tomb (Mark 16,1-8). Succeeding events of the Passion were linked to liturgical times of prayer: Prime (Mark 15,1), Terce (Mark 15,25), Sext (Mark 15, 33-34) and so on. Parts of the passion were re-enacted as is shown by visual presentations and dramatic elements.

This would explain how we have to understand the story of the women finding the tomb. No doubt, ancient historical events are preserved in the narration; yet the story itself reflects more directly liturgical practice. The women, representing Christian pilgrims, approach Jesus’ tomb. They find the stone rolled away from its opening. They enter the empty chamber and find a man clothed in white: the liturgical minister. The man preaches the Easter message: “You seek Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified. He has risen. He is no longer here. See the place where they laid him”. What we have, therefore, is a very ancient record of liturgical practice directly linked to Jesus’ tomb.

When the account of the empty tomb did become apologetics in later time, the “young man” of Mark became the “angel of the Lord” we find in Matthew.

Death is a terrifying reality. Psychologists tell us that our human spirit assume its own immortality. We cannot imagine our non-existence. Somehow we always seem to act on the illusionary premise that we shall never die. This explains in part why it is so easy for us to suppress the idea of death, in spite of daily evidence to its inevitability.

Christian tradition ascribed to Christ’s descent into hell another mission: proclaiming liberation to the patriarchs, prophets and saints of the Old Testament. “In the spirit, he went to preach to the spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3, 19)

“Up and away,
Thy Saviour’s gone before, why dost thou stay,
Dull soul? Behold the door
Is open, and His precepts bid thee rise,
whose power hath vanquished all shine enemies.
In vain thou say’st
Thou art buried with thy saviour, if thou delay’ st
To show by thy behaviour,
That thou art risen with Him.
Till thou shine
like Him,
How can’st thou say His life is thine?
George Herbert 1592-1633.

There is good reason to assume that the location of the tomb was preserved also in later times. After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the city was scarcely inhabited. But most Jews and Christians kept going up to the place on pilgrimage, and the small settlement of inhabitants must have held up the traditions of the place. After a second Jewish revolt, the Roman Emperor Hadrian rebuilt Jerusalem as a pagan city in 135 AD. He called it “Alia Capitolina”. Knowing the veneration of the Christians for the sight of Calvary and the tomb, Hadrian built a pagan temple on top of it. The small hillock of Calvary was raised up, with rubble and earth, to become a terrace on which a sacred grove to Venus and Cupid was planted. The area of the tomb was covered and cleared to become a market place, a “forum”. This arrangement did not stop the flow of pilgrims. They knew that their sacred places were underneath the pavement. When emperor Constantine two centuries later wanted to restore the holy places, he found most of Calvary and the sepulchre intact.